Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Chess, Freud and paranoia: Another column for the JCPCP

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Another of my Sighcology columns for the Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy. There are three more posted on this blog, covering private schools, Davids and mental hospitals.

More about the JCPCP on the Egalitarian Publishing site. 

Reuben Fine could have been a contender. When Alexander Alekhine, the reigning world chess champion, died in 1946, the game’s authorities announced a tournament involving the world’s strongest players to find the new champion. And Fine, along with three Soviets, a fellow American and a Dutchman, was among the six players invited.

Fine, however, declined to take part, arguing that the conditions favoured the Soviet players. He soon dropped out of elite chess altogether, preferring to concentrate on his career as a psychotherapist.

As an orthodox Freudian, Fine took a particular view of chess. Bill Harston, writing Fine’s obituary for the Independent in 1993, explained:

Drawing heavily on the earlier writings of Freud's biographer Ernest Jones, Fine supported the view that chess is an embodiment of the Oedipus Complex, with the father-figure King ('indispensable, all-important, irreplaceable, yet weak and requiring protection') and powerful mother-figure Queen providing the elements for the player to enact his parricidal fantasies. The pieces, according to Fine, are mostly phallic symbols.

His writings have been widely quoted to explain the dearth of strong women chess-players and the absence of homosexuals at the highest levels of the game.


In 1972 an American player broke the hegemony that the Soviet Union had established after Alekhine’s and won the world chess championship. That was Bobby Fischer, whose match with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik acted as a symbol of the Cold War and put game on the world’s front pages.

Fine wrote a book about Fischer and his achievement. In it he revealed that for many years ‘chess players approached me with the request to try to help Bobby out of his personal problems. In spite of his genius, he was socially awkward, provocative, argumentative and unhappy’.

In fact, or so Fine wrote, he had already tried to help Fischer. Bobby’s mother had consulted him soon after her son had won the US Junior Championship at the age of 13:

He came to see me about half a dozen times. Each time we played chess for an hour or two. In order to maintain a relationship with him, I had to win, which I did. ... My family remembers how furious he was after each encounter, muttering that I was “lucky”.

Hopeful that I might help him to develop in other directions, I started a conversation at one point about what he was doing in school. As soon as school was mentioned, he became furious, screamed, “You have tricked me,” and promptly walked out. For years afterward, whenever I met him in clubs or tournaments he gave me angry looks, as though I had done him some immeasurable harm by trying to get a little closer to him.


Dr Fine might have got on better with Fischer’s opponent in the match that won him the world title, because Boris Spassky’s reminiscences of first encountering chess are pregnant with Freudian meaning – as the psychiatrist said of Basil after staying at Fawlty Towers, “There’s enough material here for an entire conference.”

David Edmonds and John Eidinow wrote in Bobby Fischer Goes to War:

In the summer of 1946, Spassky passed his days watching the players in a chess pavilion "with a black knight on top" on an island in Leningrad's river Neva. "Long queen moves fascinated me," he recalls. "I fell in love with the white queen. I dreamed about caressing her in my pocket, but I did not dare to steal her. Chess is pure for me." 

Spassky had learnt how the pieces move by watching older children play when he was sent to an orphanage during the Siege of Leningrad. When he was back home, his first trainer used to feed him as well as teach chess. He remembered those summer days in the chess pavilion:

He had thirteen kopeks for his fare and a glass of water with syrup to see him through until the last streetcar carried him home. His feet were bare. "Soldiers' boots were my worst enemy."

Chess can be a great escape.


Bobby Fischer never defended his world title. The conditions he insisted upon proved unacceptable to the game’s authorities as they would have given him an unfair advantage over his challenger. So Fischer walked away from chess.

His only return to the game came in 1992, when he and Spassky played another match. Fischer won again, but neither player was the force he had been 20 years before. Over those two decades there had been worrying reports about Fischer’s mental health, and this second match caused him further problems. It was held in the short-lived Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was under United Nations sports sanctions, and the United States issued a warrant for Fischer’s arrest. He was never to return there.

This did nothing for his state of mind and his raging paranoia was exposed to the world by his reaction to the terrorist outrage of 9/11: 

"[I hope] the country will be taken over by the military – they'll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews, execute hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders."

It was Iceland, the scene of his greatest triumph, that stepped in to offer Fischer asylum, in both senses of the word. He died there in 2008.


I could conclude with the words of Bill Hartston, who was briefly Britain’s best chess player at the start of the Seventies and later became a journalist and then a star of Gogglebox: “Chess doesn't drive people mad: it keeps mad people sane.” But maybe chess isn’t a good occupation if you have a tendency to paranoia, as you spend your life encountering ingenious people who are plotting your downfall.

And paranoia about professional chess was never confined to Bobby Fischer nor obviously unjustified. There were those in 1946 who wondered whether the Soviets had murdered Alekhine to hasten the crowning of their first world champion, while Reuben Fine’s doubts about the ensuing tournament appeared justified when one Soviet player contrived to lose all four of his games against another.


nigel hunter said...

IT CAN BE,IS A VERY DEVIOUS GAME.HOWEVER,I and my mate go after the Queen from the start being the most powerful piece on the board for we know she protects the KING. We limit our play time to an hour so it does not get boring. Winner is the one with most pieces on the board. Just play for fun (at the pub).

Jonathan Calder said...

Pub chess is the best chess. I used to be a demon at five-minute chess, but do better at 10-minute these days when I play online.

nigel hunter said...

10 minutes!!?? We are just warming up!!